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Emergency Services: Ministers of Religion

Volume 821: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to put in place a multi-professional strategy for the emergency services concerning the attendance of ministers of religion at the scene of situations involving serious injury.

My Lords, a working group bringing together representatives from policing and the Catholic Church has now concluded its exploration on the issue of access to crime scenes for religious ministers. Decisions regarding access in such situations remain an operational matter. However, the College of Policing has now published revised guidance on managing investigations, reflecting those discussions and wider input. As a result of those changes, we do not have any plans to pursue a multiprofessional strategy.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend and the Government on taking action on this delicate matter, which came to prominent attention at the time of the tragic murder of Sir David Amess. I welcome the new guidance. It recognises explicitly the convention rights of both the dying and their families in these emergency crime scenes. But it remains, as my noble friend says, entirely an operational decision for the police. What mechanism is my noble friend going to put in place to ensure that the revised guidance leads to a change in practice?

I thank my noble friend for his congratulations. At the moment I am not subject to much congratulation, so I take it where I can get it. I totally agree with him. It might seem like a small step, but it is a huge step for many families who might have found themselves in the same position as Sir David Amess. Guidance is being distributed to forces, and I know that forces were keen to have clarity on what to do in such situations. Coming back to my first point, it is of course an operational matter.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that communication is vital? Will there be a list of priests in each area, with telephone numbers, who could be available if a priest were needed to give the last rites in serious injury cases?

I think that is a very interesting question. Obviously, it might not be entirely predictable where priests might be in the case of a serious incident, but it is certainly true that, in circulating the guidance, police will now be far better informed about how to go about these requests should they arise.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the former president of the National Association of Chaplains to the Police, which I helped to establish over 30 years ago. There were then only two or three chaplains in the whole country; now there are almost 500, most of whom are volunteers, who do a superb job helping and supporting the police service. Will the Minister ensure that Police Chaplaincy UK is fully supported by the Government and is soon, I hope, enshrined into the police covenant?

I do not think there is any doubt that the police chaplaincy service is fully supported by the Government. It provides a vital service at critical times to people in need. I cannot say further than that, but what I will say to the noble Baroness—and I congratulate her on the work she does —is that the Government fully support the service.

My Lords, this is a delicate area, especially when we are dealing with crime scenes or potential crime scenes. Nevertheless, do Her Majesty’s Government have any plans to ensure how this information will be rolled out in training people who are going to be in charge of these scenes? Is there going to be any monitoring to ensure that this is available? The sacrament of the last rites is a fundamental religious principle for many people. Can we have some assurance that this is going to be monitored?

I am sure it will be monitored, for the very reason that we need to be very clear that the police should be able to do the job that they have to do at the scenes of what might be quite critical incidents. They need to have the freedom to make those judgments but also be mindful of the wishes of people who might want to have a priest or religious leader with them at the time of critical illness or nearing death. I say to the right reverend Prelate that there is certainly further learning to be done on this, but I think this is a very welcome step forward.

My Lords, has thought been given to arranging for all of us to carry something similar to a kidney donor card in this context? One of the saddest aspects of the appalling murder of Sir David was that he was denied the last rites. He was a devout Roman Catholic; he would have expected to have them. If we could have a degree of co-ordination, so that all of us, if we wished, could carry such a card, perhaps that could be of some help.

My Lords, last month, as the Minister said, the College of Policing updated its guidelines to allow for the attendance of ministers of religion at the scene of a crime where appropriate, following a collaborative effort led by the Metropolitan Police and the Archbishop of Southwark. What steps will the Government be taking to review this decision and ensure that there are no unintended consequences of this welcome step? I note that a number of other questions from noble Lords have been about reviewing this decision and monitoring it to ensure that it is properly implemented.

The noble Lord and other Members of the House are absolutely right. We do not want any unintended consequences from this guidance—which has been developed very quickly, I might say—such as contamination of a scene, which might impede a criminal investigation. As with all things that we do, we will review this, and I am very happy to come back to the House in future months and see how it is working.